01/04/2012 05:36 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2012

Occupy the Academy (#OTA)

"Writers write; teachers teach; activists act . . . Good scholars do all of the above"

Universities have had a tough year in terms of public relations. Over the course of 2011 there were multiple full-blown scandals. The Penn State and Syracuse University-coach-as-pedophile/predator scandals rocked the media sphere. The 'exceptional brutality' pepper-sprayed at UC Davis students shocked any of us who were previously unaware of just how brutal unchecked police forces can be. One of the most storied Historically Black Universities, Florida A&M University, with the premier HBCU marching band, is in danger of losing its accreditation as a result of an alleged hazing-related death. In early April, Yale University students filed a formal Title IX complaint against the university for its failure to address the kind of systemic misogyny that is all too common on college campuses and more often than not, too readily ignored. Throw in "a study released by the Pew Research Center," that suggests that 57 percent of college customers -- um, I mean students -- do not feel that they are getting their money's worth and I think most University PR officers will concede that 2011 has been a collective disaster for the University brand -- broadly conceived.

These are just a handful of the most publicly covered University issues. And they cannot be cast as mere PR disasters; each of the aforementioned cases represents deep-rooted challenges that the University (or more to my point -- the Academy) must address on multiple fronts immediately. Pedophilia, rape, violence, and misogyny are terrorizing our 'society'. When any or all of these crimes against humanity become manifest in the Academy -- scholars of the academic disciplines (especially in the humanities) must assume the charge of addressing pedophilia, rape, violence, and misogyny directly and diligently. Otherwise the Academy is a bastion of artifice, fear, and contradiction. Aren't we supposed to be preparing young folk to be sensible (and sensitive) citizens? Maybe we are, but the results are confusing. Consider the riots at PSU in the immediate aftermath of the firing of Head Coach Joe Paterno; or the courage under fire exhibited by those students pepper-sprayed at UC Davis; or the mentality of the band members who allegedly beat their colleague to death; or the frat boys at Yale who circulated a "pre-season scouting report" on first-year women students; or the Yale undergrads who filed the Title IX complaint.

And then there's the Occupy movement. In late December 2011, Stanford University professor, H. Samy Alim posed an ill question -- "What if We Occupied Language?" Alim accomplishes some swift academic and political work in the piece. But the centerpiece resides in the shifting meaning of the word, "occupy," itself: "[i]t's no longer primarily about force of military power; instead it signifies standing up to injustice, inequality and abuse of power. It's no longer about simply occupying a space; it's about transforming that space." For me, this is the kind of work that the Academy, (that academics), must do -- not instead of, but in addition to the traditional activist work that must be done. We have to Occupy the Academy -- transform the ivory tower from its traditional gothic structure -- featuring racism, sexism, classism, and ism-ism -- into a more malleable structure, where ideas can live and breath. The Academy must be a place where respect for peace, equality and humanity is an absolute given. #Occupy the Academy.

I admit that neither Alim's essay or the Occupy movement itself is the sole impetus for the #OTA movement. And for those who will ask about #OTA's direction and directives; what is #OTA's purpose; how does it work; who are its leaders; what are #OTA's list of demands -- I can only say to you that this movement has been in the making for some time now. This year's disastrous news narratives point to some of the ways in which the civic principles of the Academy have been taken for granted or worse, obscured in the tyranny of tradition. As we have become more aware of gender, rape and violence in society and in the Academy, the challenge is for academics to use the tools at our disposal to join the battle, to make the world safer for children, for women; to make this country fair for undocumented workers, for disenfranchised voters, and so on and so on.

In the last several years a handful of organic scholars have decided to come back to school for graduate degrees in the Humanities. Rosa Clemente, Joan Morgan, and Scott Poulson-Bryant are at UMASS, NYU, and Harvard respectively. Each of them enjoyed full-blown careers as a political leader, a journalist, and a novelist (respectively) and each of them are currently working on Ph.D.'s in the humanities. Byron Hurt, Stephanie Renee, (and too many others to name here) are likewise, established (Hurt is an award winning documentary filmmaker, Renee is media mogul/poet) and currently considering their own forays into the Academy for graduate degrees in the Humanities (no pressure, folks). Belinda Peterson - yes I am name checking my wife - is a registered nurse and she is also currently working on her Ph.D. in English (Lehigh). For me, this group of non-traditional graduate students, represent what's best to come for the Academy and they are the inspiration for the movement to Occupy the Academy. That is not at all to say that the Academy doesn't already have its share of progressive, communally focused folk, or its own share of activists. Jared Ball (U of M) and Salamishah Tillet (UPENN) come immediately to mind. But in order to transform the academic space we will need more soldiers for social justice. In an academy populated by folk of the ilk mentioned above disasters like those mentioned earlier will be less likely to happen. Moreover, as we Occupy the Academy, we will establish a more robust sustained effort to challenge misogyny, gender inequality, rape, and violence, social ills that plague us in and outside of the ivory tower. #OTA